Iraq’s stability on the line as U.S., Iran tensions grow

Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Zeina Karam
Associated Press

Baghdad – As the United States and Israel escalate their push to contain Iranian influence in the Middle East, countries in Tehran’s orbit are feeling the heat.

Pro-Iranian militias across Lebanon, Syria and Iraq are being targeted, both with economic sanctions and precision airstrikes hitting their bases and infrastructure. This is putting the governments that host them in the crosshairs of an escalating confrontation and raising the prospect of open conflict.

Nowhere is that being felt more than in Iraq. It is wedged between Saudi Arabia to the south and Iran to the east and hosts thousands of U.S. troops on its soil. At the same time, powerful Shiite paramilitary forces linked to Iran pose a growing challenge to the authority of the central government.

In this Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019 photo, a billboard shows Shiite spiritual leaders, and a volunteer fighter from the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces killed in Iraq fighting Islamic State militants, in Baghdad, Iraq. As the United States and Israel step up their efforts to contain Iran, countries in Tehran's orbit are feeling the heat.

As the pressure mounts, divisions within Iraq’s pro-Iranian factions have burst into the open, threatening to collapse a fragile government coalition and end a rare reprieve from the violence that has plagued the country for years.

“Regional challenges facing Iraq will make it even more difficult for Adel Abdel-Mahdi to bring the (militias) under control,” said Randa Slim, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, referring to Iraq’s prime minister.

The divisions among Iran’s Shiite allies in Iraq have been spurred by a spate of airstrikes blamed on Israel that have hit weapons depots and bases belonging to the Iran-backed militias, known collectively as the Popular Mobilization Forces, or PMF.

There have been at least nine strikes since July both inside Iraq and across the border in Syria, sparking outrage among PMF leaders. They blame Israel and by extension its U.S. ally, which maintains more than 5,000 troops in Iraq.

Israel has not confirmed its involvement in the attacks, and U.S. officials have said Israel was behind at least one strike inside Iraq.

The attacks have fueled calls for a U.S. troop withdrawal by hard-line anti-American groups in the country that have strong ties to Iran.

“The Americans are hostage here … If war breaks out, they will all be hostages of the resistance factions,” said Abu Alaa al-Walae, secretary general of the Sayyed al-Shuhada Brigades, one of the prominent militia factions with strong ties to Iran. He spoke in a televised interview this week.

Such bellicose talk is deeply embarrassing for Iraq’s prime minister, who has struggled to balance his country’s alliance with both the U.S., which was invited back by the Baghdad government to help fight the Islamic State group, and Iran, which is Iraq’s most important trading partner. As the crisis over Tehran’s unraveling nuclear deal with world powers has escalated over the past months, that position is becoming increasingly untenable.

This week, there was a sense of foreboding following an attack by drones and cruise missiles on key Saudi Arabian oil installations. Yemen’s Houthi rebels claimed it was in response to the yearslong Saudi-led war there, but U.S. and Saudi officials said it was launched from the north. Iran and Iraq lie to the north of Saudi Arabia, while Yemen is in the south.

Iraq’s government was quick to deny that the attack originated from Iraqi territory, a claim that was later said to have been confirmed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a phone call with Abdel-Mahdi.

The episode, however, demonstrated the Iraqi government’s tentative hold over the militias and raised questions about what they might do if the U.S. starts bombing Iran, for instance. Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran’s elite Quds Force and the architect of its regional entrenchment, met this week with Iraqi Shiite politicians and PMF leaders in Baghdad, apparently to discuss scenarios.

A directive issued by Iraq’s prime minister in July integrating and placing Iranian-backed militias under the command of the state’s security apparatus forces by July 31 has so far not been implemented.

Instead, PMF billboards reading “Death to America” have popped up between lanes of traffic in Baghdad.